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The Narcissistic South

Encyclopedia of Southern Culture

edited by Charles Reagan Wilson, edited by William Ferris
University of North Carolina Press, 1,634 pp., $49.95

It is common knowledge that Jimmy and Billy Carter were their legal names. It may be less commonly realized how representative of their native region this folksy naming practice is. The southern delegation in Congress during the mid-1980s, for example, included an Andy, a Billy, a Cathy, a Jamie, a Jerry, a Larry, a Lindy, and a Ronnie, all legally recorded names. When formal names do exist for popular luminaries they are often ignored or forgotten. William Franklin Graham, Jr., is a complete unknown, but Billy Graham is a household word, as are Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

Populistic nomenclature can become more bizarre. Men of some status bear such legal names as Bubba, Buddy, Lonnie, Sonny, and Stoney. Males are inflicted with female names and vice versa: “Frankie and Johnnie got married,” as the song has it. Both males and females often bear double given names, usually in diminutive forms, such as Billy Bob, Danny Lee, Jonnie Mae, Emma Gene, Tammy Jo, and Willie Lee, often combining a male with a female name, and as readily bestowed upon offspring of one sex as the other. The regional taste in nicknames is illustrated in the world of sports by Bear Bryant, Dizzy Dean, Mudcat Grant, Catfish Hunter, and Oil Can Boyd. Place names preserve onomastic talents of earlier times. English-speaking people have always had their way with French place names, but few have outdone Arkansans, who derived the name of their city of Smackover from the original French name, Chemin Couvert, or the Texans who created Picketwire from Purgatoire. Few novelists would be so bold as the South Carolinians who placed Slabtown on the map.

As often happens with lists of alleged regional peculiarities, their opposites can be readily cited. Maps of southern states are more liberally sprinkled with classical place names than with Slabtowns and Smackovers—Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Carthage, Memphis, and Rome, for example. Personal names often reflect the same taste. Every southerner knows an Augustus, a Lucius, a Virginius, or perhaps even a Dionysius or a Cleanth. Where but from a southern state could emerge in different centuries an ambassador and a prize fighter both named Cassius Marcellus Clay? Names are also given to commemorate heroes, as witness the frequency with which one finds in phone books of southern towns the initials G.W. and T.J. for the first and third presidents of the republic. Given names very often serve to perpetuate the family name of a mother or some worthy forebear. Drawing illustrations from modern southern writers alone, one thinks of such given names as DuBose, Carson, Erskine, Flannery, Truman, Penn, Stark, and Walker.

More frequently than names, southern speech and accent draw comment from non-southerners and serve as popular stereotypes of regional distinctiveness. Linguists agree that there are speech differences, but agree on little else about them. They write more on the speech of the South than on that of any other region. Popular misconceptions abound. While most Americans, southerners as well as northerners, perceive southern speech as different, specialists cannot identify anything that can be termed a “southern accent” or a “southern dialect.” There is more diversity of speech in the South than in any other region and no more uniformity than exists in the nation as a whole. Nothing in the way of a slower speech tempo justifies the folk perception of “southern drawl.” That has more to do with rhythm, cadence, and intonation, as do differences between the way blacks and whites speak. Blacks and upper-class whites share r-lessness, and all classes may slip into you all, use ma’am and sir as modes of address, substitute liked to for almost, and diphthongize vowels in time and tide. But one quickly runs into diversities such as the lower South stretching vowels in bid, bed, and bad, and the upper South pronouncing steel like stale, and stale like stile.

Any number of theories are advanced to account for these mysteries, some of which, such as climate and life style, are manifestly absurd. There is full agreement upon no one theory. Contrary to widespread impression no evidence exists that southern English is losing its distinctiveness. It has undergone major changes, as have all varieties of English in the last half-century, but it is not being homogenized or “standardized” by television addiction or northern migrants. To the contrary is evidence that southern youths are consciously resisting change more than their elders and would not be caught speaking “like a Yankee.” A southern university that offered a course in correcting southern accents was greeted by student outrage and harassment of the instructor. Speech so regarded becomes an assertion of identity, loyalties, and roots, and cultural departures from the “norm” a matter of conscious choice as well as heritage.

Freud’s phrase, “the narcissism of small differences,” may occur to skeptics as the appropriate label under which to file away such data. The differences are indeed relatively small compared with those encountered in a few miles of travel across Europe and other parts, even within a single nation’s boundaries. The mention of Basques, Scots, Armenians, and Kurds in connection with southern insistence upon cultural difference can evoke smiles. Nevertheless differences do exist. Some of them have been around for a long time and are of genuine significance. A few are self-serving and self-perpetuating. Any scholarly enterprise seeking to justify separate regional study of any aspect of life in the South must assume some regional distinctiveness and may occasionally exaggerate small differences. We already have a large encyclopedia of southern history and an encyclopedia of southern religion and one on black life.1 And now we have an encyclopedia on the region’s culture.

Exceeding the size of the others, The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture suggests more the dimensions of the unabridged Webster’s International. It runs over 1,600 pages set in wide double columns, pages of a size that contain at least three times the number of words in an ordinary book page. Of the 164 definitions of culture that anthropologists have catalogued, the editors take as their “working definition” the broad one of T.S. Eliot—“all the characteristic activities and interests of a people.” This means not only creative achievements in music, literature, art, and architecture, but the whole “cultural landscape,” including “everything that has sustained either the reality or the illusion of regional distinctiveness.” The editorial policies are inspired by Eliot’s belief that “culture is not merely the sum of several activities, but a way of life.”

The Encyclopedia is sponsored by the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, where the editors, Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris, are located. It is an achievement that does credit to both the university and the editors. The editors have secured contributions from some eight hundred specialists, most of them in the South but many from elsewhere. With few exceptions, they appear to take their assignments seriously and give us their best. To put one question at rest right off, any suspicion of special pleading, romanticizing, or provincial defensiveness may be put aside. “Benighted South” gets more than equal time with “Sunny South”—all the way from Garrison’s “great Sodom” through the southern literature of depravity, idiocy, bigotry, incest, rape, lynching, murder, and suicide down to modern South bashers. The Snopeses lived there too, and they had their culture.

So did the blacks, and to anticipate a second question, they are also included. In fact it may seem to some that what with a foreword by that inventive genealogist, Alex Haley, and the bracketing of Alice Walker with William Faulkner, the editors may have leaned over backward in this respect. They do perceive clearly, however, that while slavery and segregation, among other things, forced it into distinctive patterns, black culture is very southern—and that all southern culture is part black. W.E.B. DuBois has an eloquent and often quoted passage about the “two-ness” of being both black and American. An unexplored implication of the work under review is a third dimension added to the “two-ness”—that of being southern as well. White southerners also share the “three-ness” by virtue of the biracial component of their culture. Cajuns, Jews, and Creoles have still another, but the southern component bulks large for all. Jews with a southern accent constitute some of the oldest families of Charleston and Savannah.

Myth, symbol, and image—carefully so labeled—receive due attention. The South at times seemed “a land populated by a succession of predictable stock characters,” and stereotypes: belles, cavaliers, darkies, Klansmen, sadistic sheriffs, demagogic politicians and preachers, and nubile cheerleaders. To a remarkable extent the symbols are of northern origin, including “Dixie,” the Confederacy’s favorite song and popular name. A Connecticut Yankee produced a novel crowded with durable southern stereotypes in Uncle Tom’s Cabin; an Ohioan produced Cotton Is King; Pennsylvanian Stephen Foster composed most of the classic “southern” songs, from “My Old Kentucky Home” to “Old Black Joe”; New Yorker James K. Paulding, a fire-eating Yankee secessionist, helped to create the plantation legend in his fiction; Currier of Massachusetts and Ives of New York gave us the sentimental lithographs of southern life. Needless to say, southerners themselves contributed their share of stereotypes.

Substance and reality behind image and legend are not neglected. Back of the rich mythology of southern violence lies plenty of hard fact. For the last century such statistics as are available place the states of the South ahead of the rest in criminal homicide, usually very far ahead. This is true of whites and blacks, with black homicide rates several times those of whites, but with suicide rates for both races (as well as rates of mental illness, heart diseases, and alcoholism) appreciably below national averages. The raw facts are reflected in popular attitudes: those toward capital punishment, for example, with the South accounting for a little less than a third of the nation’s population but 65 percent of its 1,202 prisoners awaiting execution in 1983. Or the region’s notorious gun culture, with ownership of firearms (though not of handguns) greatly exceeding rates elsewhere. Homicide in the South is personal rather than random, typically the result of argument and disputes rather than the accompaniment of another “crime in the streets.”

It was in such a society that the code of honor and the duel could flourish, and along with that the mountain feuds, mob violence, race riots, night riders, political shoot-outs, labor wars, Texas Rangers, Ku Kluxers, the James brothers, the Hat-fields and McCoys, and in the late 1930s “Bonnie and Clyde.” Southerners enshrined a great variety of “social bandits” and outlaw heroes in myth and legend, all the way from the Regulators of colonial South Carolina to the “Dukes of Hazard” of the recent television series. In 1958 more than 10,000 Mississippians attended the funeral of Kennie Wagner, a jail-breaking, gunslinging outlaw hero and survivor of many shoot-outs. Whites had the Klansmen and the James brothers, blacks their Harriet Tubman and John Brown. Folk song and story are heavily burdened with subjects and themes of violence and outlawry, and no less so southern letters, including the best.

  1. 1

    David C. Roller and Robert W. Twyman, eds., Encyclopedia of Southern History (Louisiana State University Press, 1979); Samuel S. Hill, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion in the South (Mercer University Press, 1984); W. Augustus Low and Virgil Clift, eds., The Encyclopedia of Black America (McGraw Hill, 1981).

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